Author: Liesbeth Wildschut
First publication: 01/01/2010
Language: Dutch
Originally published in: Danswetenschap in Nederland - Deel 6
Made available by: Bloemlezing Vereniging voor Dansonderzoek (VDO)
Themes: Research and Application
Media: article

Dit artikel is eerder verschenen in: Naber, R., B. Nieuwboer, L. Wildschut (eds.) (2010), Danswetenschap in Nederland – Deel 6. Vereniging voor Dansonderzoek, pp.75-81

Years ago, in 1999 to be precise, I visited the Lucent Danstheater in The Hague, The Netherlands, and watched the dancers, dressed in black and white, perform in Enemy in the Figure by William Forsythe. They appeared and disappeared at high speed. On the stage they made dazzling turns; arms and legs were moving in several directions as the dancers quickly changed places. And although I had an excellent overview from my seat, dancers suddenly seemed to have disappeared: in the wings, behind the undulating wall in the centre of the stage or in some dark parts of the stage which was lit in varying places by mobile lamps. I felt the turns in my body, felt my arms, legs and head wanting to shoot out in different directions. Quick as lightning. When I rose from my seat when the performance was over, my body was a bundle of energy.

In the Utrecht Kikker theatre I watched Burn (2006), seated in one of the chairs, which were set in a small circle. This setting made me feel strongly aware of the physical presence of both myself and the spectators in the other chairs. I watched Dylan Newcomb narrowly missing us in passing, sometimes touching us in a casual way, meeting our eyes for a moment. He took my body along as he accelerated and clenched up. In that same theatre my body went rigid right at the opening scene of Bacon (2005) by Nanine Linning. Three bodies were hanging upside down, high above the floor, their feet in ropes. My body felt what this position induced and wanted to escape from this distressing situation. The strange thing was that when two of the dancers alternately reached the ground again and began their dance, I kept focused on the dancer still hanging above the floor, bending and stretching her torso. An almost impossible effort, according to my abdominal muscles. Only when she made contact with the floor did I feel released from the enormous tension in my body.

In the events mentioned above, my body reacted strongly to the movements I was watching. These sensations evoked emotions I can still remember, (many) years after the event. Watching the fierce or compressed movements started a process in my body, which made me feel strongly connected to the acts of the performers, as if it was me performing these movements. This way of involvement, kinesthetic empathy, is an involvement process many choreographers wish to bring about. As Nanine Linning writes on her website ( ‘Maybe the highest good in a dance performance is to let the audience and the dancer become one body.’ For these choreographers it can be inspiring to gain more insight into the mechanisms of such a, often unconscious, connection between spectator and dancer.

I distinguish kinesthetic empathy from physical reactions as an expression of emotions, like growing rigid with fear, smiling when something funny happens or swallowing when one feels moved. Of course, affective, cognitive and sensorimotor body systems work closely together and regulation mechanisms play a large part. Yet without wishing to neglect the complexity of these combined processes, in this article I would like to isolate the concept of kinesthetic empathy and elucidate its workings.

Below I present some results of a small-scaled empirical research, exploring differences between manifestations of kinesthetic empathy between spectators sitting close by or further away, while watching the performance Landscape (2009) by Amy Raymond.

Kinesthetic empathy

In the field of Theatre Studies, the distinction between a cognitive way of involvement and empathy was already discussed by psychologist Theodor Lipps (1906) in the early twentieth century. His ideas are still of interest (see Curtis, 2008). In 1939 the dance theoretician John Martin mentioned the audience’s physical reactions while watching dance. He stated that we not only watch movement but, as we are sitting in our seats, also participate in it, and so we experience the same emotions as the dancers do (Martin, 1965 [1939], p.53). His theories are still referred to (among others by Foster, 1999; Bleeker, 2002, 2008; Wildschut, 2003), although his presupposition that watcher and dancer experience the same emotions is abandoned nowadays. Important is that Lipps as well as Martin are convinced of the idea that spectators who are watching movements feel the spontaneous urge to imitate them, which in turn leads to specific kinesthetic sensations which evoke emotions linked to these movements.

In Bewogen door dans (2003) I elaborated on the process of kinesthetic empathy with the help of empathy theories which focus on imitation of movement, research results in the field of non-verbal communication, views from dance therapy and results of neuroscientific research. I was able to further accentuate the concept of kinesthetic empathy by using the results from the empirical research I carried out among 391 children after they had watched an abstract or narrative dance performance. In addition, I received valuable information from forty dance experts (dancers, choreographers, students and teachers from professional dance training courses and professional dance observers) who described their experiences with kinesthetic empathy.

From recent neuroscientific publications we have gained further insight into the process of kinesthetic empathy. Neuroscience is concerned with all aspects regarding the brain and the nervous system and has developed spectacularly over the past few decades. Successful use is being made of brain scans to study the functioning of the human brain. It involves sliding a person’s head into a powerful magnetic field to see what parts of the brain become active when certain tasks are carried out. Experiments with virtual reality confusing the brain, or research in which brain damage plays a part, can also help us gain a better understanding of the workings of the brain. Research results give insight into the transformation from watching movement to initiating movement and experiencing emotions. Through these new insights our knowledge of dance also increases and this is useful for the practice of dance. By laying bare the mechanisms which are active while watching dance the interaction between performance characteristics and audience characteristics can be better understood.

Firing mirror neurons

We watch (and hear) the dancers’ movements. We can process this information in different ways: empathically, rationally or reflectively. I will focus on the physically felt moving with the dancers, of which the perceived movement is the stimulus and the spectator receives information coming from his own body. We get movement information of our own body through the proprioreceptors, sense organs located in our muscles, tendons, joints, nerves and middle ear. The question is how the transformation from watching a movement to initiating or carrying out this movement takes place.

In the early nineties, neuroscientist Giacomo Rizzolatti and his research team at the University of Parma (Italy) made a remarkable discovery. They managed to register certain cell activities in the brains of monkeys who were making grabbing movements, but they also accidentally discovered that the same neurons (nerve cells) of the monkeys were active when they watched the movement. This means that neurons located in the motor area of the brain are activated while observing movement. Analyzing this discovery the researchers supposed that these mirror neurons (so called because for these neurons seeing is the same as doing) form a system to match observation and execution of motor actions (Pellegrino et al., 1992). I will use research which followed from this discovery involving the monkeys to get more grip on the concept of kinesthetic empathy.

As the method which was used for monkeys is intensive, time-consuming and aggravating, in the case of human brain research scans are used, in particular fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging). With the help of a strong magnet changes in the oxygen concentration in the brain are measured. On a computer screen one can see active parts of the brain lighten up, for instance parts in the motor areas when a limb is being moved. The motor cortex contains the primary motor cortex and the premotor cortex. The primary motor cortex is responsible for carrying out movements (each body part corresponds with a particular area) and the premotor cortex is responsible for programming movements. When watching actions, brain activity outside the visual area in the brain can be seen in cortex areas, which were considered as fundamental or main motor areas in the past. The discovery of the activity of these mirror neurons, which results in an internal mental transformation, turns out to have implications for understanding many aspects related to our understanding of the behavior of others.

Further research into mirror neurons shows that they fire, also when the last part of the movement remains hidden and can only be deduced. This means that the motor representation of the action executed by another person can be generated internally in the observer’s premotor cortex, based on understanding the action, as visual cues are limited (Umiltà et al., 2001; Rizzolatti and Craighero, 2005). If understanding acts is possible, based on other stimuli (for instance on the sound of footsteps, reading or thinking about someone running), the mirror neurons fire even when there are no visual stimuli present. Sportspeople have been using this knowledge for years and practice mentally to prepare for a game or to recover after an injury. Neuroscientist Corinne Jola found in one of her studies that visualizing a movement, which is seldom carried out in daily life, namely moving the big toe sideward, promotes this ability (Jola, 2008). The activation of mirror neurons puts the observer in the same internal state as when the action in question is carried out (Umiltà et al., 2001).

Hidden and visible manifestations

In the documentary Noorderlicht, Rizzolatti and his colleague Gallese discussed their research results. According to Vittorio Gallese our brain has a system that is capable of projecting gestures made by others on the same areas which we use to steer these gestures when we make them ourselves. Rizzolatti supposes that in case of a ‘brake’ only part of this system is activated. This brake system, presumably located in the frontal cortex, only allows certain behaviour. People who suffer from brain damage in this area cannot stop imitating, even if they are ordered to. Rizzolatti observes that the brake system can also ‘leak’ to the action activation area in the case of people who do not have such brain damage. This almost results in action against the observer’s will (Noorderlicht VPRO, 23 May 2002).

If we apply these research results to the situation in the theatre where during a dance performance the spectators focus on the movements of the dancers, their premotor brain area will show activity related to the observed movements. It is conceivable that the repression mechanism of some spectators may show leaks. The questionnaires filled out by forty dance experts (Wildschut,2003) showed that moving with the dancers is an inner experience, but can also be visible from the outside. Many answers show that visible movement is restrained and has a kind of ‘overflow’ in the farthest limbs. A student at a dance academy stated: ‘I think it is more inside of me, but sometimes I “betray” myself by moving my hands or head along with the dancer.’ A choreographer remarked: ‘My reactions are too visible for the people around me. This bothers me sometimes because I’d rather imagine myself being unnoticed.’ Often contracting and relaxing muscles are mentioned, for instance when falling movements occur, and a change in breathing, in particular when watching modern dance. A teacher at a dance academy writes: ‘A vague relaxing of my shoulders when I watch a fall. Contraction of my muscles in the case of a sudden bow.’ (Wildschut, 2003 pp.170-171)

This is in line with the brake system as discussed by Rizzolatti. The descriptions by the experts show that some leakage in the brake system is concerned. Their urge to move is channelled in a direction acceptable for that moment, for instance by moving a hand or a foot.

Watching Landscape

While watching a dance performance, the audience receives an amount of information. Although the dance itself is usually a domineering aspect, the spectators determine for a large part where to focus their attention and if they want to be involved in an empathic, experiencing and/or an understanding, rational way. In kinesthetic empathy the attention for, or maybe even concentration on, the movement plays an important role. Concentration on the movement can be caused by the interest of the spectator, for instance because of his or her own experience with dance, but also by the choreographer who draws the attention to the movement and addresses the body of the spectator, as is the case with Burn.

In 2009 Amy Raymond made Landscape, a research project under the wings of Dansateliers. Her interest in the awareness of physical sensations of spectators, in how spectators connect to the performers and in the question if proximity makes the piece more available, gave me the opportunity to explore further the findings of my earlier research, carried out among the experts. I decided to focus on two questions:

1. Are there differences in the awareness of kinesthetic empathy watching the performance close by or further away? (Experts mentioned both possibilities.)

2. Which parts of the body are involved mostly? (Experts mentioned inner felt as well as visible manifestations in several body parts.)

Landscape was performed by two dancers: Kevin Polak and Miquel de Jong. During two of the four scenes the dancers were also visible by projections. The piece was made for a small audience and performed in a shuttered gymnasium. Therefore Dansateliers organized two performances especially for this occasion and invited students of Utrecht University. They were asked to sit close by or further away. Immediately after the performance they filled in a questionnaire about their involvement during each scene.

The questionnaire

Related to each scene I asked seven questions about possible involvement strategies, with one question per episode about physical experiences. (For example, while watching the man with the table top, I felt my body moving along.) They were answered on a seven-point scale. The episode with the strongest physical experience was chosen and with this scene in mind, more questions about the students´ experiences of kinesthetic empathy were asked: four questions about their awareness of invisible, but inner felt physical experiences and four questions about visible movements. They were also asked which part(s) of their body was (were) involved.


The respondents, all studying Theatre and Dance at Utrecht University, consisted of 12 men and 37 women, aged 18 to 56, average 23. While 28 respondents wanted to sit close by, 21 of them choose their seats further away. Differences between the distant and close by group were analyzed. Respondents sitting close by (N=28) felt their body move stronger with the dancers in a visible way than respondents sitting further away (N=21) (p=0.02). No significant differences were found for inner felt movements.

Movement was felt in different parts of the body, especially head, trunk, shoulder and belly, as you can see in the diagram below. They were asked in what body parts movement was felt, without distinction between inner felt and outer visible manifestations. At first sight the diagram shows more activity in the close by group (light colored). T-tests made it clear that significantly more respondents sitting close by felt their head and belly moving than respondents sitting further away (dark colored) (p=0.017; p=0.019).


Studying the diagram, one sees that only in the leg more respondents of the distant group felt activity. However, there are no statistics, because of too few respondents. Therefore, this would be an interesting direction for further research. The body posture of the respondents could serve as an explanation: the distant group was seated on chairs, the close by group seated on the floor with their legs folded. Some members of the expert group (Wildschut, 2003) mentioned the importance of an open posture while watching: if you are not willing to connect yourself on a movement level with the dancer you keep your arms and legs crossed (p.170). By sitting on the floor, legs are easier forced in a closed position then when sitting on chairs.

Although the results can be influenced by the choice of the spectators themselves to sit close by or in the back, the experiment shows that some manifestations of kinesthetic empathy are stronger when the audience is seated close by. Activity felt in the belly, the centre of a moving body, was hardly mentioned by respondents sitting further away. Since this experiment took place in a (large) gym, differences in a theatre setting probably are even more significant. For choreographers who intent to evoke the feeling of being one body with the dancers this can be an indication to take into consideration to perform in small auditoriums.

Postscript by Liesbeth Wildschut (June 2019)

In dance research the concept of kinesthetic empathy got more and more attention, which is related to the change of focus from understanding a performance to emotional and kinesthetic experiences of spectators while watching dance. In 2010 a conference in Manchester was dedicated to this topic: Kinesthetic Empathy: Concepts and Contexts. On their website you can still find a lot of information, videos of presentations and discussions about research on this topic. We see that insights form neuroscientific research are very helpful to get grip on the phenomenon of kinesthetic empathy, as I also outlined in this article.

I developed my method of asking questions further in collaboration with Arno Schuitemaker (Wildschut 2013). At the moment I work on a research in collaboration with The Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour. Our research group consists of Harold Bekkering and Lukas Spiess (Donders Institute), Sasha Ondobaka (Institute of Neurology, UCL), Vicky Fischer (Max Plancke), Wieneke van Breukelen (Laban specialist) and myself. In this challenging research we combine data from questionnaires and analysis of brain activity of participants (breakdancers and modern dancers) watching dance while lying in a fMRI scanner. Analysing the data keeps us busy and hopefully we can publish some results in the near future.

Wildschut, L., (2013). ‘A performance as shared space of action’ In Dance ACTions – Traditions and Transformations. Proceedings NOFOD/SDHS International Conference 2013. Trondheim: Norwegian University of Science and Technology, pp. 407-415.


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